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Landmark Legislation: Abolition of U.S. Circuit Courts

Landmark Legislation

36 Stat. 1087
March 3, 1911

In 1911, Congress created a single code encompassing all statutes related to the judiciary and took the opportunity to revise and unify existing laws. At the same time, Congress abolished the U.S. circuit courts as of the effective date of the statute, January 1, 1912. Established by the Judiciary Act of 1789, the circuit courts served as the most important trial courts of the United States for over a century. The circuit courts lost their limited appellate jurisdiction in the 1891 act creating the U.S. courts of appeals, but as part of the political compromise behind the act of 1891, the circuit courts continued to serve as trial courts alongside the district courts for the next 20 years. By abolishing the circuit courts and transferring their jurisdiction and pending business to the district courts, Congress instituted a judicial system with a single type of trial court and eliminated the inefficiencies associated with administering two types of court that were often presided over by the same judge.

The remainder of the Judicial Code of 1911 was not so much a reorganization of the structure or procedures of the federal courts as it was a standardization of law governing the judiciary. Over more than 120 years, many contradictory statutes had accumulated through legislation approved for the purpose of organizing individual courts. Congress had first gathered the statutes related to the judiciary into a single code in the Revised Statutes adopted in 1874, but the resulting Title XIII preserved all of the legislation then in effect without reconciling the varying rules and court structures that often applied to the same types of courts in different parts of the country. In 1899, Congress appointed a commission to recommend revisions in the judicial code, and the subsequent report became the basis of the proposed revision submitted to Congress in March 1910.

The broad reconsideration of judicial statutes encouraged some members of Congress to use the proposed code as a means to enact a substantial reorganization of the courts or to win approval for major legislation indirectly related to the judicial function. Members of the Senate and the House of Representatives offered amendments to restrict the issuance of injunctions in labor disputes, and House members revived the debate over the monetary value required for diversity cases (those involving parties from different states) in the federal courts. They hoped that a $5000 limit, up from $2000, would restrict the ability of corporations to remove cases from the state courts. The House narrowly defeated an amendment that would have sharply limited the ability of a corporation to remove a case regardless of the amount involved. The approved code increased the jurisdictional amount to $3000, but for the most part Congress resisted the suggestions to enact major new legislation through the revised code. The abolition of the circuit courts prompted numerous lesser changes, the most significant of which was the provision authorizing a senior circuit judge or circuit justice to assign a circuit judge to hold a district court "whenever the public interest shall require."

36 Stat. 1087, 1167
March 3, 1911



SEC. 289. The circuit courts of the United States, upon the taking effect of this Act, shall be, and hereby are, abolished; and thereupon, on said date, the clerks of said courts shall deliver to the clerks of the district courts of the United States for their respective districts all the journals, dockets, books, files, records, and other books and papers of or belonging to or in any manner connected with said circuit courts; and shall also on said date deliver to the clerks of said district courts all moneys, from whatever source received, then remaining in their hands or under their control as clerks of said circuit courts, or received by them by virtue of their said offices. The journals, dockets, books, files, records, and other books and papers so delivered to the clerks of the several district courts shall be and remain a part of the official records of said district courts, and copies thereof, when certified under the hand and seal of the clerk of the district court, shall be received as evidence equally with the originals thereof; and the clerks of the several district courts shall have the same authority to exercise all the powers and to perform all the duties with respect thereto as the clerks of the several circuit courts had prior to the taking effect of this Act.

SEC. 290. All suits and proceedings pending in said circuit courts on the date of the taking effect of this Act, whether originally brought therein or certified thereto from the district courts, shall thereupon and thereafter be proceeded with and disposed of in the district courts in the same manner and with the same effect as if originally begun therein, the record thereof being entered in the records of the circuit courts so transferred as above provided.

SEC. 291. Wherever, in any law not embraced within this Act, any reference is made to, or any power or duty is conferred or imposed upon, the circuit courts, such reference shall, upon the taking effect of this Act, be deemed and held to refer to, and to confer such power and impose such duty upon, the district courts.

SEC. 292. Wherever, in any law not contained within this Act, a reference is made to any law revised or embraced herein, such reference, upon the taking effect hereof, shall be construed to refer to the section of this Act into which has been carried or revised the provision of law to which reference is so made.

SEC. 293. The provisions of sections one to five, both inclusive, of the Revised Statutes, shall apply to and govern the construction of the provisions of this Act. The words "this title," wherever they occur herein, shall be construed to mean this Act.

SEC. 294. The provisions of this Act, so far as they are substantially the same as existing statutes, shall be construed as continuations thereof, and not as new enactments, and there shall be no implication of a change of intent by reason of a change of words in such statute, unless such change of intent shall be clearly manifest.

SEC. 295. The arrangement and classification of the several sections of this Act have been made for the purpose of a more convenient and orderly arrangement of the same, and therefore no inference or presumption of a legislative construction is to be drawn by reason of the chapter under which any particular section is placed.

SEC. 296. This Act may be designated and cited as "The Judicial Code."